Five themes in five years for Wales’ new regulator

Paul Boyle examines the new strategic priorities set by the Welsh government for the Commission for Tertiary Education and Research

Paul Boyle is vice chancellor of Swansea University, chair of Universities Wales, and chair of UUK's Research Innovation Policy Network

The challenges Wales has to contend with in the next five years are substantial.

Technological change, downward pressure on public finances, an ageing population, workplace reorganisation and an increasing demand for graduate level skills at a point where participation of young adults in further and higher education in Wales is on a precipice.

With the publication of the Welsh Government’s statement of priorities we now know which of the pressing issues Wales faces that the new Commission for Tertiary Education and Research is tasked with focusing on for the first five years of its existence – and there’s a lot to choose from.

The statement of priorities

The Commission, the new regulator and funder covering post 16 education and research in Wales, has to incorporate five key areas into its strategic plan:

  • Develop a tertiary system that prepares learners for a dynamic and changing economy where all can acquire the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in life and work
  • Maintain and enhance the quality of the tertiary system, continue and intensify work on widening participation and take steps to ensure a more equitable and excellent system for all
  • Putting the learner at the heart of the system by focusing on the experience of learners in the tertiary system and their wellbeing
  • Ensure that the tertiary education system contributes to the economy and society
  • Establish the Commission for Tertiary Education and Research as a highly effective organisation providing stability and leadership during this time of transition

Each of these areas includes a range of specific points that the Commission will need to consider.  Many of these are consistent with existing government policy such as an emphasis on flexible and lifelong learning, a focus on equity and participation, priorities on student engagement and mental health support.

The participation challenge

When the Welsh Government first published a White Paper in 2017 setting out their proposals for reform, then Chair of Universities Wales – Colin Riordan – wrote in Wonkhe about the need to prepare Wales for workplace and technological change, a theme that has recurred throughout Universities Wales’ work in the years since including our 2019 report Solving Future Skills Challenges in Wales.

It is welcome to see the need to respond to the changing economy, as advocated in that report, reflected so consistently throughout the priorities. But in the years since, another challenge has emerged: some alarming early signs of decreases in participation across post-16 in Wales which widens an existing gap with the rest of the UK. This is seen not only in the most recent UCAS data – where the gap between Wales and the UK for 18 year old participation is wider than at any other point in the available data – but also in participation for 16-18 year olds. Many of these challenges were highlighted in the recent EPI report which found education and labour market outcomes were worse for working class young people in Wales than elsewhere in the UK.

For Universities Wales, we hope the priorities on participation, equity and continuation will take root in the development of the Commission’s strategic plan as we face the real possibility of cohorts of young people less well qualified than their immediate predecessors. And this is an issue that could benefit substantially from a joined-up post-16 approach.

Priorities for universities

Universities Wales set out our key priorities for the Commission in December 2023. As well as participation, which we see as one of the most fundamental challenges we face, we also highlighted the need for the Commission to act as an advocate for Welsh research and innovation in the UK system and the opportunity to reduce the bureaucratic burden.

Research and innovation in Wales is fundamental to our future prosperity: both through direct economic impacts and long-term benefits for people and places. It is high impact and high quality – a recent HEPI report found that the indexed performance of papers from Wales was above all regions of England except the East of England and London – but low volume, with Wales securing less investment that would be suggested either by population share or institution size.

While it is welcome to see the priorities note the importance of a drive to excellence, there is also a role for the Commission in being a steward and advocate for research and innovation in Wales on a UK and international level. We hope that as the Commission develops their plans, this is considered.

The statement also asks the Commission to develop measures for research performance: it is important to focus on the performance of Welsh research but also that we hold in mind the importance of operating in ways consistent with the UK and international research environment. This matters for attracting staff, ensuring comparability through exercises such as REF, and enabling Welsh universities to secure funding from UK-wide and international sources.

The statement explicitly sets out an ambition to minimise bureaucracy and operate as a risk-based system. This is particularly important during this period of significant financial pressure across higher education and education more broadly. As we have set out before: fees and grants no longer cover the costs of teaching home undergraduates or research and innovation. At the same time, reductions in Welsh Government spending in education coupled with the inflationary pressures on institutions and instability in international recruitment means this position is likely to get more challenging.

Where next?

This perhaps points to a central challenge facing the Commission. The breadth of priorities all speak to areas that have a broad consensus. But realising shifts in direction either through policy, funding or regulation will have to be done alongside ensuring that the economic and social contribution of our institutions, important to communities across the whole of Wales, is maintained through a focus on sustainability.

The priorities are not an end in themselves but are intended to be realised through the development of the Commission’s strategic plan which will include consultation with stakeholders. Universities Wales has long supported the establishment of the Commission and looks forward to engaging throughout this process. What is clear, however, is that the stakes are high for Wales as we stand at this point of workplace reorganisation, shifting skills needs, and a potentially seismic participation challenge.

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